ESA Seeks Major Earth Observation Funding

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The European Space Agency (ESA) plans to ask its shareholder governments in December to approve a decade-long investment in Earth observation programs for commercial and research purposes in what might end up being ESA’s only assured area of long-term growth.

ESA managers say the agency’s 17 member governments have signaled their tentative approval of the plan, which would start by providing a gapfiller satellite to replace the Envisat and ERS radar spacecraft around 2010 and continue with a series of Explorer missions and support for near-commercial satellites planned by France, Germany and Italy.

“Everything is OK’d and on the table — except the money,” ESA Director-General Jean-Jacques Dordain said here Oct. 8, referring to the ESA proposals to be made at a conference of European space ministers Dec. 5-6.

The conference, held every three or four years, sets ESA’s financial and policy guidelines.

One principal roadblock for the agency is that its financial partner, the executive commission of the 25-nation European Union, has been unable to settle its own budget problems. The commission’s 2007-2013 financial package was supposed to have been approved in June but was set aside because of a broader disagreement over European Commission priorities.

ESA officials had hoped to enter their December meeting with the European Commission’s budget settled, including the commission’s 50-percent share of Europe’s planned Global Monitoring for Environment and Security (GMES) program.

GMES as currently envisioned would cost about 2.3 billion euros ($2.8 billion) between 2007 and 2013, with ESA and the commission dividing the costs.

With the commission’s budget picture unclear, ESA was forced to change tack.

Volker Liebig, ESA’s Earth observation program director, said the agency now will ask its governments for an immediate 200 million euros to pay the first slice of the long-term GMES effort. This money would be spent over two years to begin construction of a GMES-1 satellite to assure that the data being provided by the Envisat and ERS-2 radar Earth observation satellites does not cease when these spacecraft are retired around 2010.

The money also would be used to begin work on sensors intended for future GMES-related satellites. Finally, this initial sum would begin the laborious work of connecting the ground infrastructure being built for satellites funded by individual governments. The goal here is to assure that these satellites — Germany’s radar TerraSAR-X, France’s optical Pleiades, Italy’s radar Cosmo Skymed, among others — are capable of being used together by ESA, the European Commission and other users.

Together with this initial 200-million-euro commitment, ESA governments will be asked to approve a second-phase investment of 430 million euros in 2006 or 2007 to complete the GMES-1 satellite.

Henri Laur, program manager for the large radar Envisat satellite, said Envisat, launched in 1998, is expected to remain healthy until 2010, well beyond its initial four-year service life. Scientific users of Envisat data have informed ESA that they are counting on the agency to supply follow-on satellite sensors to continue Envisat-type operations after 2010.

ESA’s future Earth observation plans do not stop at GMES. Also in December, the agency will ask its governments to finance an Earth Observation Envelope Program starting in 2008. Total cost: 1.49 billion euros.

This money would pay for ESA’s EarthCare satellite, which is being planned as a joint mission with Japan, and for an additional spacecraft in the agency’s Explorer series of satellites. The first Explorer mission, Cryosat, was lost Oct. 8 when its carrier rocket failed. Four other Explorers are in development and scheduled for launch between 2006 and 2009. EarthCare is scheduled for launch in 2012.

The Earth Observation Envelope Program also includes 47 million euros per year to operate Envisat until 2010 and continue to receive the 250 gigabytes per day of data that Envisat is sending to ESA’s Esrin Earth observation facility here.